I wrote the following article for the delWine/Indian wine Academy website, which appeared under the title ‘Restaurant ratings can be misleading unlike wine‘.

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Vir Sanghvi’s latest article about the challenging exercise of rating restaurants deals with many valid issues, but also raises some extremely relevant questions  about the way such ratings are conducted and awards are decided.

Among other issues highlighted in the write-up related to likely aberrations in these ratings, one particular sentence calls for special introspection – “Our own awards, the HT Crystals are also far from perfect. The main awards are voted for by the readers of HT City so you can’t quibble with the people’s choices but honestly, public opinion can be strange!” Here, it is clear that the Hindustan Times sponsored main awards (like many others) are basically ‘People’s Choice Awards’ where the winners are decided by the number of votes they attract from the public.

Next, let’s consider who constitute the ‘public opinion’ in this case. Ideally it should be those who have either visited the restaurant or read and thoroughly grasped the reviews about its offerings and service. Anyone who does not fulfill these criteria is not fit to make an informed decision about rating a restaurant. And certainly not those who couldn’t care less about a restaurant’s placement in the market, like my aunt, for whom Orient Express and Wasabi are nothing more than a famous train and a Sushi accompaniment respectively!

Needless to mention that to rate a product or service objectively, one has to be aware of them to start with, otherwise there will always be concerns about the usefulness of such awards as a guide to great dining options. Most importantly, the award organisers need to plug any loophole to ensure right people expressing their views. At the moment, this shortcoming may be getting overlooked.

Consider a probable scenario (which, by the way, is not a figment of any imagination) – as soon as the restaurants are shortlisted for a category, a scramble starts to gather as many votes as possible for a particular restaurant brand. Emails start floating inside the organisation asking employees, their friends and relatives to vote. Wherever unlimited SMS voting is permitted, it is encouraged to avail the facility to ensure that their chosen restaurant gets the maximum number of votes. Traditional workplaces where social media sites are not accessible, special provisions are made to enable employees to go to sites like Facebook to cast their votes. This practice does not seem too different from reality TV shows where the results are based on frenzied SMS voting, but isn’t it ironical to relegate the measurement of a restaurant’s stature to mere numbers?

While allowing employees to vote for their own restaurant is itself questionable, when others who have no way of determining the quality of a restaurant become a part of this ‘public opinion’, the entire exercise is bound to attract scrutiny. Can ratings based on the participating organisation’s own votes (staff + their family members & friends) be helpful to offer credible dining options to customers?

Such a model of rating restaurants is also likely to unfairly favour a large organisation which has aggressively generated internal votes. This is more likely to be relevant in close contests where the top F&B destination may be decided by a margin of few votes. Having said that, it will be a mistake to assume that all awards or category of awards are likely to be affected by this model of rating. Restaurants like Wasabi, Taipan, Dum Pukht, Indigo and La Piazza among others, have consistently proven their worth to make it to the top of the award charts and mass popularity, and quite deservedly so, irrespective of any minor anomalies in the rating system.

It should also be borne in mind that this by no means is an India only phenomenon. Even the most coveted of all restaurant awards, the Michelin star, has had to face charges of inconsistent rating system apart from other allegations of undue favouritism and bias.

In a nutshell, and in the light of the above challenges, no wonder user review sites like Tripadvisor and Zomato have become so popular for they have brought a level of transparency the hospitality industry so badly needs. As the Indian dining culture evolves and customers have more say in fixing accountability of the hospitality trade, the day is not far when actual customer feedback will be the deciding factor in a restaurant’s success or otherwise.

Lastly, as a wine professional I cannot help but compare the above model with highly recognised wine ratings and awards from around the world, although the dynamics are quite different for each; wine ratings are more objective and scientific while restaurant ratings are subjective and based on unique perceptions. Here I only mean those awards where the wines are tasted blind and judged on a variety of factors and in like-to-like categories.

In spite of the effectiveness of these ratings the wine industry world over is also adapting itself to accommodate user reviews. Websites like CellarTracker are playing a pioneering role in this field and have given a voice to wine consumers world over, which no one can ignore.

Cheers,

Niladri

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